Friday, July 12, 2013

The Evolutionary Basis of Sexism

This week I stumbled across a fascinating website by a scholar named Peter Frost who has researched (among other things) the fact that women’s skin is lighter than men’s. Yes, that’s right: women have lighter skin than men. What the heck?

Not only that, but apparently, skin color signals male or female gender to the unconscious mind. Click on this link and you’ll see two faces. Granted, both faces appear gender-ambiguous, but the one on the right looks more masculine, and the one on the left looks more feminine, right? The only difference between the two photos is the skin color (slightly darker in the photo on the right). Well, I don't know if it will work for you, personally, but it certainly does for me.

ISN’T THIS UTTERLY FASCINATING??? And what are the implications with respect to racial prejudices???

Well, you can read Dr. Frost’s website for some speculation.

I just wanted with this post to point out an intriguing theory of the biological evolution of the differences between the sexes which Frost mentions as a possible explanation of the male-female skin color difference:

“Guthrie (1970) suggests that a fairer skin is one of several infant-like features—smaller nose and chin, smoother skin texture, relative lack of body hair, higher pitch of voice—that women have evolved to deter male aggression: ‘the sexual differences in skin color resulted from female whiteness being selected for because it is opposite the threat coloration, although the selection pressures may have been rather mild. Light skin seems to be more paedomorphic, since individuals of all races tend to darken with age. Even in the gorilla, the most heavily pigmented of the hominoids, the young are born with very little pigment.’”

[The reference is: Guthrie, R.D. (1970). "Evolution of human threat display organs." Evolutionary Biology 4:257-302.]

WOW!! Another thing that was not previously part of my consciousness, but it makes so much sense: part of the evolution of the differences between men and women is that women have a more child-like appearance in order to trigger others’ nurturing and protective instincts rather than competitive and aggressive instincts. Sure, it's "only a theory," but it seems quite reasonable and helpful to me.

It’s a plausible partial explanation for the maddening condescension of men toward women (and the equally infuriating condescension of women toward women).

And the theory makes me feel so much more “okay” with humankind’s terrible history of sexism and misogyny; now that it seems so obvious that it was, for a longer time than I can imagine, evolutionarily advantageous for women to be treated more like children than adults, I see no need to be angry that such a social pattern existed for millennia and has not been completely transcended in the present day. Human instincts are relatively weak, but they do exert some influence and our species can therefore be cut some slack. It may take a while for that one to be gotten over, and that shouldn't be dismaying. Instead, we should be amazed at how much progress has already occurred thus far.

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